child sex abuse
[Representational Image] Child sex abuse in travel and tourism is an endemic phenomenon globally: Report. Picture: A child of a sex worker sleeps in her room in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata July 14, 2007.Reuters

Sexual exploitation of children by travellers has increased drastically, becoming an endemic phenomenon throughout the world now. This is despite the fact that a programme to end it was in place for two decades, according to a report released by ECPAT International, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to eliminating sexual crimes against children.

The ECPAT International released the report, Offenders on the move: Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism or SECTT, perhaps a first of its kind study, on Thursday. More than 70 private and public sector organisations involved in protection of children against sexual abuse contributed to the study.

The study found that children from all sections of society are victim of sexual exploitation by travellers. However, "children in dysfunctional families, children living in poverty, orphans, members of minorities, children living and working on the street, child labourers or LGBT children" are more vulnerable than others.

The nature of child sex abuse by tourists or travellers has also changed dramatically over the time. "No region is untouched by this crime and no country is 'immune'," according to the report.

Children in India and other South Asian countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation by travellers because of poverty and lack of livelihood opportunities, the study found.

The offenders are not anymore restricted to white, Western, wealthy, middle-aged men, the global study found. Now anyone, including foreign or local, young or old, paedophiles and those who aren't, have been found to have exploited children.

"Local, domestic, and intraregional travellers account for most, with many being 'situational' offenders, i.e. engaging in child exploitation because of an opportunity and because they feel they will get away with it," a press release about the report said.

The study further found that not only are the victims of both genders, but the offenders are also both male and female. It also noted that the United States and Canada "are source countries for offenders, who travel to other regions in order to sexually exploit children."

"Reports from South Asia confirm that not all travelling sex offenders are men. The presence of female predators has long been noted in Sri Lanka, tied to relationships with 'beach boys' during holidays. Research by the NGO Equations in 2009 found that in India, female child sex offenders are travelling to Madhya Pradesh for extended stays to sexually exploit boys," the study notes.

It cites Unicef as stating that "some parents approve, and even encourage, their sons' involvement in SECTT, in exchange for gifts and support from the foreigners."

According to the report, it is tough to find concrete data about the drastic rise in SECTT across the globe because of a host of factors. However, it cites figures on the Green Notices issued by Interpol in various countries that show the rise in travelling child sex offenders. A total of 126 Green Notices were issued across the world in 2011 for travelling child sex offenders. In 2015, the number, from January till October, stood at 405.

"Green Notices are international requests for cooperation or alerts that allow police in member countries to share critical crime-related information. They are, however, woefully under-used and participation is voluntary," the report said.

Over years, the venues for sex trade have shifted from red alert areas to hotel rooms, guesthouses, rented flats in suburban areas, and massage parlours, restaurants and clubs with young masseuses have become the "venues." "Another emerging venue for sexual exploitation is orphanages, according to the report.

The study suggests that the instances of sexual exploitation of children are on the rise because the world has become more interconnected and travel has become cheaper than it was before, and thus, more people are on the move. The number of international tourist arrivals rose from 527 million to 1.135 billion annually in the last 20 years. Internet and social media network have also led to the increase in SECTT.

Although several reports from across the world showed a drastic rise in SECTT, the rate of conviction still remained alarmingly low because of "chronic lack of reporting by all stakeholders (witnesses, victims and their families), coupled with weak legislation and law enforcement...chronic lack of data and other evidence on the scale, scope and nature of the crime."

Najat Maalla M'jid, the Chair of the High-Level Task Force for the SECTT, has called for global attention and intervention to fight for the cause. "We must all share the burden of ending sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. It is a moral obligation to act now to protect all children from this shocking crime wherever they are," she said.